Saturday, September 30, 2006

Why I Owe The U.S. Navy $200

When I was nineteen, I worked at a convenience store across the street from the military recruiters. I learned real quick how to relate to recruiters. Come out quick and come out often! If you throw blatant gayness in their face every time they try to mention "the limitless possibilities afforded to you by a career in the military" , they may get the hint and leave you alone. Except for the Air Force guy; he was a pervert.

I got to know the Navy recruiter through a coworker who was trying to enlist. She never did make the weight limit (Hah! I hated her.) so the recruitment process took a long time, and the recruiter came in pretty often. Petty Officer Steven Daugherty was a big guy, pretty soft-spoken, and never tried to recruit me. I liked him. He even offered to look at my car one night after work when it was making funny noises.

In hindsight, maybe that was a bit of a come-on, but I was nineteen and he was in his thirties so it never occurred to me.
So I drove over to the little rental house the Navy gave him and he looked at my car. I don't remember what was wrong with it, but I remember we talked for a while out by the curb and he invited me over to hang out some night. Thus, a beautiful friendship was born. Steve wasn't like the guys I knew. He was a big guy with the lingering remnants of a Kentucky accent, but he wasn't a redneck. He drank wine, not beer. He was a vegan. He lit scented candles to relax and listened to jazz. Yeah, I thought he was gay at first, too. But nope, he was straight, and still is to the best of my knowledge. Over the course of a few months we became pretty close friends, with me often driving straight to his house after work to watch TV and hang out. It was all flowers and puppy dogs until the damned Navy screwed it all up that fall.

They stationed him in Chicago!! At the Great Lakes Training Base in Chicago! Steve would now be working with school kids as some sort of Navy youth outreach program. Chicago is only about three hours away, so it wasn't as bad as it could have been, but still. Chicago! I grudgingly agreed to help him move and on a Friday night in January I left work and drove to his place to do my part.

He had rented a trailer and had it filled by the time I showed up, so I settled in for a three hour drive up and around Chicago, to the suburb of Gurnee. Not that I'm all that great at suburb geography, but to this day as far as I know , Gurnee's only real strong points are a giant outlet mall and a Six Flags theme park. I instantly resented this town that was stealing my friend and cursed it under my breath. Shouldn't have done that, because it turned out to be a rather vengeful suburb intent on drawing blood.

For the next hour or so Steve moved furniture while I handled the light stuff: couch cushions, pillows, his stuffed Roadrunner collection. But eventually I ran out of soft and cuddly things to carry and had to move on to more ominous loads, like framed art and suitcases. And an empty twenty dollar file cabinet from Wal-mart. Like I said, it was January, and by now about 3:00 in the morning, and the walkway from the curb to the door was dark and icy, but I'd walked it a dozen or so times, so I wasn't worried. Not that it wasn't awkward trying to watch my step with my arms wrapped around a file cabinet, but I did it. Never slipped once. But you know that little bump at the thresh-hold to a building, the strip of metal easing the transition from cement sidewalk to carpeted hallway? Yeah, that thing kicked my ass. I caught it with my toe and came down hard on my knees. Luckily though, the edge of the file cabinet broke my fall, on my face.

Steve saw me go down and asked me if I was alright. I took stock and was relieved to note that I hadn't bitten through my tongue and said yes. But, and I don't know why, I instinctively rubbed my chin with the back of my hand. It was at that point that the blood started flowing, dripping down my neck and off the end of my chin to pool on the ground. Steve panicked. I asked him to get me something to hold against the cut and he raced inside. And what does a great defender of our country bring you when you've split your face open? A two by two gauze pad. Yeah. That took about three seconds to soak through, and then Steve got an old t-shirt for me. I told Steve to go ahead and keep hauling in furniture while I cleaned up. I went into his bathroom, wet a corner of the shirt, and applied pressure to my chin until the bleeding slowed enough that I could see the cut. I saw skin, and fat cells, and bone. And then, in the most dignified fashion possible, I burst into tears like a little girl. Not from pain, or the sight of blood, but out of frustration at the absurdity of the situation. I couldn't just help a friend move like a normal person. No, I had to bust open my face and get stitches and make the whole night about me.

Steve found me sitting on the edge of the tub, crying and holding the shirt to my chin. I told him I needed stitches and he asked if I was sure. I showed him my stark white jawbone to convince him (ever see a 200 pound career military officer turn green?), and he agreed to drive me to the hospital.

As we drove around Gurnee, aimlessly looking for blue signs with white H's, he mentioned how unfortunate it was that he didn't know where any hospitals were except of course for the one on-base. It really should have occurred to me that the only Navy training base in the country would have doctors, but it hadn't. I asked Steve to please take me to the base, pointing out that if they wouldn't sew me up they could at least give us directions to the nearest hospital. So of we went, at by now 4:00 am, to see if his ID would get me on-base.

It did, and as we explained our predicament to the pimply faced recruit behind the desk, I noticed more recruits peeking out from behind the corner. Young recruits. Male recruits. Recruits who had not laid eyes on a civilian female in weeks. The guy at the counter went to defer with his colleagues and it was decided among them that yes, they would be more than happy to sew my face shut. This decision, however led to a new problem. How to set up an unprecedented billing system. Since the base clinic only treats enlisted people and their families, all for free, there was no program to enter my billing information into. However, the guys with the needles and thread were quite eager to get me behind their curtains and so Steve was left to try to help out the poor sailor who was beginning to realize that thinking with your anchor sometimes leads to rash decisions.

My time behind the curtain wasn't so bad, although when I learned that the only corpsmen on duty were a week away from taking their suture tests I started to rethink the decision to stop by. And when they expressed such shock at the amount of lidocaine it took to numb my chin only to be told by a passing nurse that they were jamming the needle in too far and letting all of the juice run right back out of the wound, I experienced a moment of fear. But with one guy holding my hand to comfort me through the flushing of the wound, one during the injections, and yet another during the actual sewing, it was okay. An hour later I walked out the door with six very carefully places stitches under my chin and one pretty gruesome blood-stained t-shirt to show my friends.

When I went to the ER clinic back home a couple weeks later to have the stitches pulled (the amateurs had made them too tight for me to get my own scissors under), I asked the doctor how much he would have charged for six sutures. He gave me a rough estimate of $200. Eleven years later, I have yet to see a bill from the Navy. But I know that somewhere in the computer system up there, my maiden name and my old address are listed with a balance due, and everytime CNN reports on some military spending expense audit, I wait for a bill to arrive.

1 comment:

Chris said...

great story :0) thanks for finally posting it